Tragedy strikes Jefferson County dairy
Plucinskis’ barn destroyed in fire Sept. 11
The Plucinskis’ barn lies in ruins Sept. 14 three days after a fire took down the 48-stall tiestall barn near Jefferson, Wisconsin. All of the farm’s bedding and dry hay for the winter was lost. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
JEFFERSON, Wis. – The hopes and dreams of Derek and Meg Plucinski crumbled to the ground the day their barn caught fire. As they helplessly watched smoke and flames engulf the classic red tiestall facility, the couple wondered what the future would hold.
“I cannot believe this happened,” Meg Plucinski said. “It’s all so hard. This is our future, and our kids’ future. Without our milking facility, there’s not much to do. That’s our source of money. But God uses all things for good, so I’m focusing on that.”
The Plucinskis milk 40 cows and farm 300 acres on the organic dairy farm they rent near Jefferson. The young dairy farmers created D&M Family Farm when they began renting the farm July 1, 2018. The farm has been organic since 2006. The Plucinski farm is also home to a variety of other creatures including free-range chickens – 100 meat birds and 60 layers – turkeys, ducks, geese, goats and pigs. The family runs an on-site store where they sell chicken, pork, beef, turkey and eggs grown on their farm.
Sept. 11 was supposed to be a relaxing day away from the farm, but things soon turned tragic. The Plucinskis and their children – Wyatt, Fitzgerald, Eleanor and Elvira – were headed to Wisconsin Dells when they got a call from their landlord saying the barn was on fire.
“We don’t ever get away,” Plucinski said. “We do all the work ourselves around here, and all week we planned to take this trip that Sunday.”
The Plucinski family left their house at 8:15 a.m. and by 8:54, they received the dreaded call.
“We only got to Waterloo and made it back to the farm by 9:25 a.m.,” Plucinski said. “We could see the fire from the hill when we drove down the road. It was a big fire, and the smoke was so thick, it was hard to see the house. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening; this is our farm.’”
Pieces of their future are now scattered everywhere. But, Plucinski does not view any situation as hopeless. Her undaunted faith is seeing her and her family through this nightmare that life has thrown their way. Thankfully, no people or animals were hurt in the fire. Cows were on pasture, and the only animals in the vicinity of the fire were seven calves huddled in the back of a nearby hoop barn that started to melt.
“The smoke went in the opposite direction, so all the calves were fine,” Plucinski said. “Derek was down there all day checking on them. The kids and I were in the house. We just stood and watched in disbelief out the window.”
Numerous fire departments worked to extinguish the fire that raged persistently on a miserably wet and rainy day. Days later, the remains of the barn still smoldered. The cause of the fire is not yet known.
“It was an emotional moment with it being 9/11,” Plucinski said. “That’s significant to us and seeing all the firetrucks here really struck a chord.”
When finding a temporary home for their cows, the Plucinskis had to choose organic. For this reason, they were unable to move the cattle to Plucinski’s parents’ farm. Milk cows are being housed a half hour away at another organic farm that is on the same milk route as the Plucinskis. Derek drives back and forth to help with milking.
“We have to try and get organic feed,” Plucinski said. “All of our bedding and dry hay for the winter was destroyed in the fire. It’s a lot of labor to make small square bales, and poof; they’re gone. Lots of people are offering us feed, and I feel bad turning it down, but we can only feed organic. A big chunk of our income comes from being organic.”
None of their equipment was damaged, and Plucinski said they have crops to harvest, which they are thankful for. The Plucinskis recently expanded their herd, buying 25 cows as they work toward their goal of milking 75 head. The couple is transitioning to seasonal calving and is currently in the middle of their calving window.
“The last two months were really tight with milk and money,” Plucinski said. “The cows were just freshening, and now, they’re gone. We needed that money.”
A shamble of dreams lies where the 48-stall tiestall barn once stood. Little treasures are strewn about in the rubble, like the red gate Plucinski recently purchased and the milk cart she bought her husband for his birthday.
“There’s a lot of sentimental value there, but I know what each item costs too, and everything adds up,” she said. “I look at it all and see money that’s gone. It’s tough seeing where the calving pen once was. I always set my kids there to play with the calves.”
The barn is a complete loss as well as a grain bin containing oats and peas that was just harvested by the Plucinskis. One of the silos was filled with flames and will not be used for corn silage this year.
“We loved the beautiful old barn,” Plucinski said. “It was full of nostalgia. I loved that it was handmade by people, not machines. There was so much history here.”
The Plucinskis had removed the stanchions from the barn, and nine months ago, they put in a 6-stall walk-through milking parlor on one end of the barn.
“It was extremely devastating watching an excavator smash what we just built,” Plucinski said.
“It was a homemade system that was really well set up for Derek to milk alone because we couldn’t get help.”
Seeing the generosity of their community has been a bright spot in the darkness, as people reach out with donations of food, money and gift cards.
“People want to help, and we are so grateful,” Plucinski said. “We have complete strangers sending money through Venmo or dropping stuff off at our house. But, there’s also so much power in prayer. We believe in that. We don’t know what our future holds, but we feel a sense of community holding us up.”
On the day of the fire, help also came spilling in from every direction.
“There were people everywhere along with cattle trucks lined up to move cattle,” Plucinski said. “It brought me to my knees in gratitude. When something like this happens, you see the amazing people that are out there. From those working in the industry to a neighbor driving by, you see the people who truly care from their heart.”
While smoke continues to billow from the ruins, an eerie silence fills the farm.
“Our goal right now is to rebuild,” Plucinski said.
But, not owning the farm has thrown another wrench into an already bad situation.
“We were getting ready to buy the place on a land contract and were in the process of transferring ownership from our landlord,” Plucinski said. “We had until the end of the year to button everything down. Now, I don’t know what will happen. If we can’t get the cows back here in a reasonable timeframe, we won’t be able to rebuild, and that’s terrifying. The farm is our everything, but we stand to lose it all.”
Uncertain of the future, the Plucinskis are holding fast to their faith and praying that a new beginning on the farm they have called home for the last four years is in store for their family.
“Please keep praying for us,” Plucinski said. “We can feel the prayers and feel God’s hand working here. We trust his plan.”